Eight years ago I was asked by Tim Ward, the librarian at Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot, to become a member of the judging panel for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize. One of the first shortlisted books I read was Patrick Hennessey’s ‘The Junior Officer’s Reading Club’; entertaining in its own right, my experience was further enhanced because I both lived and worked on the campus at Sandhurst at the time. Throughout the book, Hennessey is deeply critical of the relevance of his training at RMAS:
‘We were still being given Sidney Jary to read in our first term…Rather like sending people into Basrah with a copy of Stalingrad, it prepared us for the worst, but I couldn’t help thinking there was more relevant stuff out there. We knew we weren’t going to be Jary and we didn’t want to be. We joined the Army to fight the three-block war’
Almost as if the Army command was listening, an evening run in the Academy’s woodland would reveal the construction of a FOB, or at least a Platoon House, though probably not an ’18 Platoon’ house. At that time, militaries on both sides of the Atlantic had become intoxicated by the writings of pundits like Nagl and Kilcullen (my bookshelves continue to bend under their earnest weight) and were rapidly ditching everything they knew, in pursuit of the new god COIN; combined arms battle was out, ‘Hearts and Minds’, or rather the latest voguish iteration of it, was in. The Army is a shallow creature of fashion, uncritically loving the shiny, feasting on the zeitgeist, and habitually throwing away the flares when the drainpipes become a la mode.
The tendency to follow fashion is not new. In 1853, for example, the Victorian explorer and soldier, Sir Richard Burton, wrote a manual of bayonet fighting, ‘A Complete System of Bayonet Exercise’, which influenced the way the British Army trained for the next fifty years. Burton’s book is a child of gothic romanticism, pleading the importance of training the infantryman for the bayonet duel; the War Studies equivalent of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. A soldier without operational experience, Burton’s argument is critically flawed because, as early as the Peninsular War, it was clear that the bayonet was becoming a purely psychological weapon, against the deployment of which no European enemy would stand. Nigel Green makes an impressive figure in Zulu…c’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre! Nevertheless, the attraction of two knights facing each other with glinting bayonets on the field of honour proved too attractive to avoid and the infantry was sucked into a Black Hole with its own culture the critical mass.
The problem is common to all militaries of course; in his book ‘A Revolution in Military Adaptation: The US Army in the Iraq War‘, Chad C Serena praises the adaptive changes the US Army adopted in reaction to the Insurgency. Serena ends with a warning: the adaptations which improved the Army’s ability to fight the ‘three-block war’ were antithetical to its culture of combined arms conventional warfare, effective or not they would not survive a swing of the pendulum towards new, improved, shiny manoeuvrism because conventional warfare was the Army’s cultural home.
‘Rebalancing the force to be more combat-centric is tantamount to ignoring history and the successful, and necessary, adaptations that occurred in Iraq. Doing so will ensure that…the Army will again have to undergo considerable adaptation in the conduct of future operations. The cost in lives and national treasure will be substantial‘.
By May 2016, the pendulum had firmly swung back, the US Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, visiting a US training mission in Tanzania, declared that COIN had gone too far, and that manoeuvrism was the real truth; drop the gourd, follow the sandal! In fairness, the scrabble to follow the new prophets had begun earlier, and in the UK at least there was some attempt to hold the slippery infant in the tub, but is Integrated Action combined with Manoeuvrism really all we gain from the thirteen years of continuous war against terror? As we hotly pursue STRIKE, Medium-Weight Capability, FRES or whatever we choose to call it, I think it important to understand that flares will come back, and that the baby is too precious the toss out with the bath water; in an Army dressed in tweed, should we really be chasing polyester? In short, look at the pretty girl at the water fountain by all means, but rather than buying a big Harley Davidson and riding off into the sunset with her, go home to your significant other, buy him or her a new outfit and a nice holiday (preferably a Battlefield Tour), and always remember divorce is cripplingly expensive!!
Hope you’ve all had a good weekend, I’m off to the cinema (I would say movies, but then I’m not a fashionista).
All the best,